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Workplace stress: the legal essentials: Part 6

Bullying

The dictionary definition of “bully” is a person who makes him or herself a terror to the weak or defenceless. Bullying at work is recognised as a serious health and safety problem which can cause severe mental and physical injury. Although bullying at work does not necessarily involve stress, the two concepts overlap and there are a number of decided cases which illustrate the link. Bullying may be physical or mental. The former, while complying with the popular concept of bullying, is less common than mental bullying.

Legal implications of bullying at work

None of the statutes or regulations concerning health and safety at work deal specifically with bullying. The few cases which have reached the courts have been dealt with either by the common law or by specific areas of employment law.

Some types of bullying may amount to discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. The remedy in such cases is a complaint to the employment tribunal. It is important to note that unlimited compensation may be awarded if the complaint is upheld. For example, Esther McLaughlin was awarded £234,000 compensation after bullying at work by a network of make colleagues made her feel worthless and eventually resulted in her being made redundant.

In more serious cases, the question of mental or physical injury may arise. if a victim is able to obtain medical evidence that bullying at work has caused such injury, then legal advice will normally be that proceedings should be started to obtain compensation.

Bullying is not expressly considered in any statute or regulation. Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc., Act 1974 imposes a general duty on employers to ensure the health and safety of employees. This is clearly broad enough to cover the ill-effects of bullying. There have been no reported prosecutions for bullying under the 1974 Act or regulations made under the Act. None of these provisions confer a right to compensation through the civil courts.

General criminal law

Bullying which involves a physical attack or a real threat of such an attack may amount to the criminal offence of assault. This is a common law crime of ancient origin which is defined, broadly, as any act by which a person intentionally or recklessly causes another to apprehend immediate unlawful violence. Technically, an assault does not involve the actual infliction of violence – a threat is sufficient. The actual infliction of violence is a battery. In practice, the term “assault” is frequently used to include a battery.

Assaults which cause serious physical harm may be prosecuted as the more serious offences of assault occasioning actual bodily harm or causing grievous bodily harm. Actual bodily harm has its ordinary meaning and includes any hurt or injury calculated to interfere with the health or comfort of the victim. This is wide enough to cover psychiatric injury but does not include emotions such as fear, distress or panic. Grievous bodily harm means really serious harm.

Harassment

This is a technical legal term which is relevant in the following areas:

  • The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 prohibits the pursuit of a course of conduct which amounts to harassment of another. Harassment is defined by the Act as conduct which causes alarm or distress. A course of conduct must involve such conduct on at least two occasions. The Act was originally introduced to deter stalkers but it also applies to workplace harassment. Liability under the Act may be criminal and civil.
  • Employers are liable for harassment under section 40 of the Equality Act 2010. Harassment is defined by the Act as follows:

A person (A) harasses another (B) if A engages in unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic and the conduct has the effect of violating B’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for B.

The relevant protected characteristics are age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

Desk rage

This is a popular, non-specific term for anger caused by workplace stress, particularly in an office environment. The following research findings have been reported:

  • One in four British workers have admitted to physically assaulting their computers. These attacks were often brought on by a flow of annoying emails.
  • One user admitted to breaking his finger when lashing out at a computer monitor. Another threw the machine down a fire escape and later gave it a decent burial in a skip.
  • The outbreak of desk rage may be caused by “inbox tyranny” – the dread of thinking that the inbox is silently filling up with emails.
  • Policies have not been developed to deal with the demands of new technology. Emails can demand an immediate response and are estimated to be among the top twenty causes of stress. Some employers have been reported to have introduced “email-free” Fridays.

The Health and Safety executive (HSE) has recommended that employees should spend between 20 and 30 minutes at a time using computers.

It is possible that workers will take revenge on their hardware in a more subtle way, for example by introducing viruses.


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